The Hardy Icelandic: A Horse Built for Winter

Baby, it's cold outside.

As temperatures in central Iowa dip to -20 degrees with a wind chill of -40 (Fahrenheit!), we're so thankful for the hardy constitution of our Icelandic horses. There are so many things to worry about when the frigid days of an Iowa winter arrive; waterers and pipes freezing, vehicles not starting, sheets of ice on the ground making every step a perilous one. Such bitter cold is difficult for any creature, but the Icelandic horse is better equipped to cope than most.

Say, lend me a coat?

Icelandic horses have a thick double coat designed to protect them from harsh conditions and the biting wind of their native country. All horses have the ability to trap warm air near their bodies by the use of piloerection – that is, they can make their hair stand on end, which traps an insulating layer of air next to their bodies. In fact, it’s much easier for horses to stay warm than it is for them to cool down. The longer the hair, the greater the layer of insulation created. Icies have a thick undercoat AND extra long hairs on their outer coats, doubly protecting them from inclement weather. Even their heads and faces are covered by this shaggy hairstyle during the wintertime. Their long, thick manes, tails, forelocks and fetlocks add extra protection. When a horse stands with hind end to the wind, the long thick tail of the Icelandic gives a distinct advantage. The fetlocks provide added protection to the legs and the mane and forelock protect the neck and head.

You’ll freeze out there!

Horses are amazingly adept at regulating their core body temperature. They are able to adapt their Lower Critical Temperature (LCT), or the temperature at which they need to burn more calories to stay warm. Most horses are able to adapt to colder temperatures in 14-21 days, reducing their LCT to -15 degrees Celcius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit. In the sub zero temps they will need to rely on more feed, and their inherent ability to create warmth with physiological characteristics.

It’s up to your knees out there!

Icies have short, stout legs, strong hooves and resilient bodies. These tough little horses are easy keepers, bred to survive on the steppes of Iceland's volcanic landscape. While a diet of high quality feed is preferred and will keep your horse healthy and in top condition, Icies are able to metabolize even poor quality grass very efficiently. Horses normally consume 2 – 2.5% of their body weight per day and can digest up to 3%. Icelandics do well on the lower end of that spectrum, while thoroughbreds, for example, tend to be on the upper level. Since an average Icelandic weighs 700-800 pounds your daily feeding regimen should be no more than 17.5 – 20 pounds of roughage and concentrates combined. Compare that to 30 pounds of feed daily for an average 1000 pound thoroughbred! All horses need more energy, and thus more food, to stay warm in bitterly cold temperatures, and you should increase feed by 2% for every degree below LCT that the temperature dips.

The compact, stout build of the Icelandic not only aids its strength, but is a boon in cold weather. Their spherical body shape and short legs reduce the surface area to body mass ratio, which in turn reduces the energy to maintain core body temperature. Since fat has 3 times the insulating power of other tissue, that “fat belly” is a big plus during the winter months.

The terrain in Iceland consists of rough, hard ground, covered with loose rock, running alongside countless underground springs which create soft bogs. This large range of difficult footing undoubtedly led to the evolution of the strong hoof wall and hard, thick sole inherent to the breed. Many Icelandic owners find their horses do well without shoes. Thermoregulation, the process that allows your body to maintain its core internal temperature, abilities are increased if a horse is barefoot. Dilation and constriction in the blood vessels of the hoof lamina (of which there are many!) helps the horse maintain healthy tissue when standing in snow and ice. If a horse is shod, its ability to expand and contract the hoof tissue is limited.

Shoeing is entirely an individual decision, however, based on the horse, its environment, and how it is used. Show horses, horses ridden extensively on rocks or soft footing, and horses exposed to moisture (such as a dirty stall or mud lot) will likely do better with shoes. In Iceland, horses are often given a month or two off in the autumn, when their shoes are pulled and they are turned out in the mountains. We decided to pull shoes and give our horses time off this winter. However, if we were planning to do a lot of riding in the snow and ice this winter, we would consider shoes with Borium or removable studs for better traction, and a tubular rim pad to prevent snowballs from forming in the sole area.

It's cold outside! 

Horses really are miracles of adaptation and the Icelandic horse is exceptionally remarkable. Thick coats, long hair, stout bodies and strong feet add up to more comfort with less effort to keep your Icelandic happy and healthy during a harsh winter. Happy riding!